For some entrepreneurs, their innovations are passion projects. But these take time and creative marketing to reach fruition.
This is often the case in assistive robotics and wearable technologies for persons with disabilities. Not only are the investment requirements and hardware costs high, insurance coverage for end users is slim to non-existent in North America, limiting market reach. But a number of startups have figured out a way to navigate these more challenging waters.
Manmeet Maggu’s quest began in 2013 when his nephew was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and was unable to walk. A University of Waterloo mechatronics student at the time, the co-founder of Trexo Robotics in Mississauga partnered with fellow undergraduate Rahul Udasi to build a solution. The end result was fully powered robotic legs that can be attached to a walker, allowing a child to walk independently.
The founders saw children and rehabilitation clinics as a starting point to develop a low-cost approach that can be scaled to address other mobility issues in time. While there are a number of devices for adults, the children’s market has been largely overlooked, says Dina Nikitina, COO.
“Hospitals typically have large stationary solutions that cost around half a million dollars, plus the cost of setup and training,” she says. “Ours is a fifth of that at this point. We’re continuing to figure out how to reduce it more so people can afford to buy them for home use. It’s not just the clinical side. Parents from all over the world are asking about this.”
By 2016 they had a prototype for testing, and are now focusing their efforts on clinics in the U.S. Later this spring they will be conducting their first clinical trial the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Nikitina reports they are looking to be fully commercialized by January 2019, with plans to release a home use product later in the year.
Kinova in Montreal is further down the innovation path of assistive robotics. The company was founded in 2006 by Charles Deguire, CEO, and Louis-Joseph L’Écuyer, CTO, with backing from private investors.
Deguire has had four uncles who were diagnosed with muscular dystrophy. “He was distraught at the thought that technology could send people to the moon and his uncle couldn’t can’t open a fridge door,” says Nathalie Tremblay, head of marketing.
The lightweight device that attaches to a wheelchair or bed, replicates the movements of a human arm. Its movement is so precise it can pick up a paper clip. The arm is controlled natively through the wheelchair controls.
By 2011 they had sold their first arm into the Netherlands. Europe made the most sense, since funding for assistive robotic devices in Canada is particularly challenging, Tremblay says. “These devices are not yet reimbursed by private or public funding bodies. The market is much more open in Europe, and there is some coverage in the U.S.”
Today, 96 per cent of Kinova’s products are sold outside Canada, in more than 40 countries. It also has relationships with 15 universities and multiple clinics. Last year marked a major turning point, when Kinova received $25 million in Series A funding.
To sustain its efforts, the company has been expanding into other verticals, including security, aviation, advanced manufacturing and surgical robots. “For companies like ours it’s essential to find verticals to drive revenues so we can support our founding mission to empower humans to gain autonomy and improve quality of life,” Tremblay says.
Since 2006, eSight in Toronto has been focused on independence for the visually impaired. Founder Conrad Lewis began developing the technology in 2006 to help his two sisters who were living with legal blindness. The outcome was electronic glasses that can help legally blind individuals see with greater clarity.
The eSight glasses include a high-speed, high-resolution camera that sends a video feed of what the wearer is looking at to a computer in the housing. There it is enhanced and projected in real time on two near-to-eye screens.
Today eSight devices are being sold into 42 countries, says marketing manager Laura Chau.
Given that 74 per cent of individuals with vision loss are unemployed and 37 per cent live in poverty, access is a challenge for many of those in need of these technologies, she adds. To that end, eSight works with individuals to run crowdfunding campaigns to help defray the US$9,995 cost.
Chau contends that the cost of living on disability and a lifetime of unpaid taxes is orders of magnitude higher. “U.S. data from actionfund.org estimates that the cost per person is US$916,000 over their lifetime. If a technology can empower an individual to be mobile, gain independence, and return to work and be an active citizen, the cost of the [assistive] technology becomes moot.”